Police: new drink laws have not fuelled rise in crime

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The Independent Online

Predictions that round-the-clock licensing would lead to a surge of drunkenness and disorder in towns and cities have proved wrong, according to a survey of police forces by The Independent.

Experts widely forecast that legislation which came into force a year ago allowing pubs, bars and clubs to open 24 hours a day would worsen public order at weekends. But most of the 43 forces in England and Wales that responded to our survey said that there had been no change in alcohol-related offences during the first year of the new regime.

Of 24 forces that provided information, 13 said there had been no discernible rise in crimes associated with alcohol such as common assault and threatening behaviour. Six - including Merseyside police - said there had been a fall, compared with five that reported a rise. Half of all violent crimes are linked to alcohol.

The Independent's survey - one of the first indications of the impact of the 2003 Licensing Act - supports the Government's contention that preventing drinkers spilling on to the streets at the same time would cut flashpoints at taxi queues and food outlets.

The Association of Chief Police Officers said new fixed penalty notices and powers in the Act to close rowdy premises were being used "to good effect". But Chris Allison, Acpo's licensing spokesman, stressed that it was too early to assess the impact of the law, partly because of £5m extra funding to combat drunkenness.

Alcohol experts also warned that, in the long term, the legislation ending the statutory 11pm last orders at pubs could exacerbate already serious health problems. The UK is in the middle of the European league for drinking but a study this year suggested that Britons drink the most on a night out.

Ministers said they hoped the Act - which came into force a year ago tomorrow - would encourage people to adopt more relaxed drinking habits.

Derbyshire police said that in the past year assaults in Derby and South Derbyshire had fallen from 6,164 to 5,238, a 9.6 per cent decrease.

A spokesman said: "Although a link cannot be directly proven we do believe that the new licensing laws have contributed as a positive factor in the reduction of these figures."

Police in Norfolk reported lower assaults in the centre of Norwich. Cases of threatening behaviour rose in Manchester but incidents of actual bodily harm fell. Greater Manchester Police said: "Officers are engaging more with the public than ever before while they are out drinking and are intervening at an early stage if they spot trouble."

West Midlands Police reported the old pinch points at 11pm and 2am had been spread out while Sussex police pointed to improvements in Brighton.

Martin Shalley, president of the British Association of Emergency Medicine and a doctor in Birmingham, said the picture was "very patchy" at hospitals across England and Wales.

"It appears attendances have not increased, but they have not decreased either," he said.

"What has happened is that the normal peak between 11 and 2am has smoothed down and now goes on until 5am."

The British Beer and Pub Association said most establishments were simply serving an hour or two later at the weekends and consumption of alcohol in pubs, clubs and restaurants had fallen by 2 per cent in the year to September.

"We are getting the benefits of the end of the last order rush, with people drinking much less quickly," a spokesman said.

"Our predictions of what would happen have largely been proved to be correct. The doom and gloom merchants have perhaps got it wrong on this one."

Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians - one of the critics of the legislation - said he was still gravely concerned about the damage to health from alcohol.

Of the new law, Professor Gilmore, a liver specialist, said: "It's managed the drunkenness but not solved the root cause of the problem."

British teenagers were now among the heaviest binge-drinkers in Europe, according to Martin Plant, professor of addiction studies at the University of West England in Bristol. "We have fairly clear evidence that deaths among young people have continued to go up and have been escalating," said Professor Plant.

"It might be that the reason crime figures are improving is that all the chief constables were given a lot of extra money.

"We need more time. If you look at the picture certainly in terms of health things are bad and they are getting worse."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Culture, said it was too early to judge the Act, part of the Government's policy along with the alcohol reduction strategy. "We have got a deep-seated culture of drinking and we are not going to change that in 12 months," she said.

Impact of the new licensing rules

THE POLICEMAN

Chief Inspector Gavin Tempest, Norfolk Police

"Pubs outside Norwich now tend to stay open an hour later and an extra hour later than that on Friday and Saturday. What this means is the rush between 11pm and 11.30pm has largely been ironed out. There has been no great change in the drinking culture. Our alcohol-related crime is showing a year-on-year drop. I think the trade has taken a very responsible approach to it in Norwich."

THE PUBLICAN

Mark Elkin, Brook Meadow, Birmingham

"We are licensed to serve until 2am but I don't think we have ever used the 2am. We have served until 1am and have had a good hour to get everyone out. We can be flexible now. It's amazing the difference an extra hour makes. I think it's psychological. As to drunkenness, it's the same. But I can't remember the last time we had trouble in the pub. I think the law has helped."

THE PARAMEDIC

Brian Hayes, London

"On the 'booze bus' in the West End, we fill up with between four and seven people and take them to hospital. Every weekend without fail we get ambulance crews assaulted, and nurses get assaulted in the hospital.Between 11pm and 2am, the majority of our cases are drink-related. If anything, age-wise, the problem has got worse. Most are under the age of 25 and of that 70-80 per cent are young females."